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  • Writer's pictureMary Barton

Music Construction - Building a Major Scale!

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

It’s difficult to embark on a journey without a road or trail. It’s not impossible, of course, but you may have to swath through a forest or jungle to get to your destination.

The journey of music is not all that different. Many generations and cultures have swathed through the vast musical forest and cut out for us, through trial and error, enduring pathways to ear-pleasing musicality. Pathways that have laid the foundation for the construction of most of the music we hear today.

One of these pathways is the music scale.


A scale is a set number of tones and/or semitones, arranged in a particular way.

Western music is based on what is known as the major and minor tonality system, from which all major and minor scales are derived. But there are other types of scales as well, for example:

  • Whole tone

  • Chromatic

  • Modes

Each of these types of scales has its own unique arrangement of tones and/or semitones.


In order to arrange a pattern of tones into a scale, we first need to identify what a tone is.

In the broadest sense, a tone in music is simply the character or nature of a pitch produced, that is, how our ear perceives it. Whether that’s a G, or an F sharp or a B flat, each note has its own particular tone, its own particular place within a range of sound frequencies.

That character of sound, as we have already examined briefly, is affected by a number of factors such as:

  • Pitch (its place within a range of frequencies)

  • Intensity & duration

  • Colour – the mood or images it evokes. Each instrument has its own timbre or colour of sound. For example, C sharp on a violin produces a different colour than C sharp on a piano.

These are some of the things that affect tone. Just as in speech, our tone of voice communicates more than our actual words, musical tones communicate far more than simply notes. This is why music can speak so powerfully to us.

In a more narrow sense, in music theory, tone is the nature of sound produced when one note moves to the next note above or below. It requires context. While a note, such as G or C, has its own particular tone, its own particular pitch or place within a range of frequencies, played by itself in isolation, it has very little shape or musical power because it is defined only by itself. There is nothing contrasting to bring out or disclose its character.

Where a note has come from or is going to creates a journey in the ear

and we experience that tonal journey as music.


In Western music, the shortest journey we can go on, musically, is a semitone, also known as a half-step or half-tone. On a piano keyboard these are easily identifiable. When we travel from any white or black key to the next closest key, white or black, that is a semitone or half-step.For example, C (white key) to C sharp (black key - also called D Flat) is a semitone. C by itself is not a semitone, neither is C sharp. But the journey from C to C sharp is a semitone or half-step.


A tone, also known as a whole tone, whole step or simply as a step, is a comprised of 2 semitones or 2 half-steps. These are also easily identified on the piano keyboard. It’s the distance between any key and the next key with one key in-between:

  • White to next white with one key between

  • Black to next black with one key between

  • Black to white with one key between

This keyboard that I colour-coded makes it easy to identify and visualize tones and semitones:

How the colour coding works:

  • Any purple to closest green or vice versa = semitone

  • Any purple to next purple or green to next green = tone

Perhaps you’re asking yourself: does it really matter? Do we really need to know the difference between tones and semitones? Actually, yes! Tones and semitones produce significantly different colours of sound and when combined in various ways, create various musical journeys!

Let’s listen to a scale comprised entirely of tones, also called whole tones. As you might have guessed, this is called a whole tone scale!

Can you hear how it has a sense of ascending higher and higher but never arriving at the top? Kind of like watching a balloon continue to rise in the air. There’s nowhere for the ear to land or settle on; there’s nothing leading the ear to expect an ending. And while we may not enjoy an entire concert of whole-tone music, it can be very effective in helping create a particular mood or character within a piece of music. For example, if you're composing a piece about the universe or the stars, a whole tone scale can create an ethereal, rising, planetary feeling!

Now let’s listen to a scale comprised entirely of semitones. We call this a chromatic scale.

Could you hear the suspense building throughout the scale? That’s because even one semitone creates a sense of suspense or tension, so playing a bunch in a row prolongs and heightens the suspense. This can be extremely useful and versatile throughout a piece of music.

Now let’s examine a scale which arranges both tones and semitones in a particular way to form what is known as a major scale. Here is the pattern of tones and semitones that occur on the white keys to form the scale of C major.:

  • T = tone

  • S = semitone

Abbreviated, the pattern is: T T S T T T S

(Remember, C by itself is not a tone, so C to D forms the first tone.)

Do you see the numeric pattern or series being formed here?

  • 2 …. 1, 3 …. 1

If we were to continue the series, it would be 4 … 1 and so on!

All major scales are identical in their pattern of tones and semitones. They just start and end on different notes. But the journey of the notes is identical. So this is an easy way to help us remember how a major scale is built:

  • 2 tones, semitone; 3 tones, semitone

  • Or: 2 … 1, 3 … 1

Now, let’s listen to the C major scale:

Did it sound familiar? If you recognized the melodic solfege pattern known as “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do” you are correct! That’s because solfege, a system of note identification using these now-famous syllables instead of single letters, is based on the T T S T T T S pattern.

Every major scale will sound like this. “Do” simply moves over to become the tonic or first note of the every scale. We call this “moveable do”.

Listen to the C major scale again. Did its musical journey sound complete and satisfying? Did it have a happy or sunny feel to it? That’s the character and colour of a major scale and why it dominates Western music. Not only is it versatile and able to accommodate a variety of melodic moods, but it has a stable, sunny and complete sense to it that is pleasing to the ear and thus, enduring

Here is the same pattern of tones and semitones used to form the C major scale applied to form the D major scale:

And here's how it sounds:

Did you recognize the solfege pattern again? This is an easy way to identify a major scale - it should always sound like Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do, regardless of what note it starts on! You can form a major scale starting on any white or black key on the piano simply by following the solfege pattern by ear or by counting out the T T S T T T S pattern of tones and semitones!

So, how many different major scales can we make with this pattern? 12! One for each of the 7 white and 5 black keys on the piano keyboard. Technically, there are 15 major scales, but 3 of them are the same as another scale, just named differently. For example, the scales of F sharp major and G f lat major are identical, but are simply "spelled" differently musically. We call these enharmonic keys. But in terms of unique scales formed by the T T S T T T S pattern, there are only 12 possible in music.

Join me next time as we examine key signatures! In the meantime, enjoy some listening fun! You will hear all 3 scales - whole tone, chromatic, and C major played ascending and descending. Can you identify which is which? (Answers at the bottom of blog post.)

Answer key:

  • Chromatic Scale

  • C Major Scale

  • Whole Tone Scale

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